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Lots expected to have spiraling bids:

Fund-the-Future: Sonoma County vintner and winegrowers have made a multi-year commitment, beginning in 2013, to foster literacy for at-risk elementary school kids. Last year, individuals contributed $2.7 million.

LOT 11: a trip to the Kentucky Derby for two couples, a three-day and four-night stay with VIP access to many high-profile events. They will be guests of Barbara Banke, chairwoman of the board of Jackson Family Wines, at her Stonestreet Farm property.

LOT 14: A trip to the 44th Telluride Film Festival for two couples, a five-night stay at the mountain village with dinners, tastings and film excursions. The package also includes a two-night stay at the ranch house of Hamel Family Wines in Sonoma Valley, with a series of dinners and tastings as guests of Pam and George Hamel Jr.

LOT 19: Features a six-bottle collection of etched large format, five-liter bottles of Kosta Browne pinot noir.

LOT 23: Features four VIP tickets to Hello Dolly! and Dear Evan Hansen, two rooms at the NoMad Hotel and a winemaker dinner for four at the NoMad Restaurant with Williams Selyem proprietor John Dyson and director of winemaking Jeff Mangahas.

Preview all the live lots at www.sonomacountywineauction.com.



When: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2 (Gates open at 11 a.m. for Club Reserve ticket holders)

Where: Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park

Cost: $180 for general admission; $255 for Club Reserve (with Visa Signature: $150 general, $225 Club Reserve.) Additional passes must be purchased for Sommelier Talks, Sommelier Tours, the Blind Tasting Challenge, and K-J wine and food pairing.

Transportation: Shuttle buses will run from five locations around the county, including Sonoma, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. Tickets range from $20 to $40.

Other activities: As part of the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, there are winemaker lunches and dinners on Friday, Sept. 1, and winemaker barbecues on Sunday, Sept. 3.

To reserve: sonomawinecountryweekend.com.



When: Saturday, Sept. 16

Where: La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in Richard’s Grove in Windsor

Cost: Tables start at $2,500

Info: www.sonomacountywineauction.com

“In life, as in chess, forethought wins.” — English philanthropist Charles Buxton

As if playing a game of chess, the organizers behind the Taste of Sonoma and the Sonoma County Wine Auction are making strategic moves.

This year the strategy involves separating the two events that have been bundled into one weekend for more than a decade.

The Taste of Sonoma will be at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center in Rohnert Park this Saturday, and the Sonoma County Wine Auction will be at La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in Richard’s Grove in Windsor on Sept. 16.

“Ours is conscious decision-making, based on good information,” said Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners. The trade group is collaborating with the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance to put on both the Taste of Sonoma and the auction.

What played into the decision to separate the events?

After hearing complaints from bidders over the years, the organizers sent a survey out to auctiongoers in the spring of 2016.

“The feedback we got about the auction was that Labor Day was difficult for families because it was a big family weekend,” Sessions said.

What’s more, research by the folks who worked on the events revealed that each drew in quite different audiences, she added. The Taste of Sonoma attracts a younger crowd, with ages ranging from 30 to 50, while the auction draws a slightly older crowd, roughly 45 to 65. Geography also comes into play when looking at the profiles of these populations. The Taste of Sonoma draws the majority of its audience from the San Francisco Bay Area, while the auction reels in people from across the country, with some international bidders in the mix.

The initial plan was to make the Taste of Sonoma a two-day affair, but in early August organizers canceled the second day, citing logistical difficulties. Now, Sessions said, the idea is to make the Taste an affordable way to really experience the diversity of Sonoma County in one day, while the goal of the auction is to make it more upscale with highbrow lots, and to wrap it into a two-day package.

The pricing reflects this shift. General admission for the Taste is $180 per person, while the fee for the auction package is $2,500. For the past nine years organizers charged $500 per person for the live auction, with add-ons available.

“It’s a noticeable jump, but we feel the quality of what we’re offering is worth it,” Sessions said.

The two-day package for the auction includes a preview auction lot party and vintner hosted dinners on Sept. 15, and the live auction and post-bidding al fresco dining on Sept. 16.

“We’re trying to recoup the cost of the auction so all bidding under the tent is for philanthropic fundraising,” Sessions explained.

The main beneficiary again this year is programs for children’s literacy. Last year’s auction raised $2.7 million for those programs. The auction also supports local charities, including ones that focus on health, the environment and the arts.

In addition to refashioning the Taste and the auction, organizers had to search for several new venues for this year’s events. MacMurray Ranch in Healdsburg, which hosted the Taste of Sonoma for 12 years, and the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, which hosted the Starlight Dinner for five years, opted to make 2016 their last year.

“Things run their course,” Sessions said. “It’s difficult for wineries because harvest has moved earlier and earlier.”

Sessions said organizers realized the Green Music Center was a great fit because it’s a rare treasure in Sonoma County, offering 300 acres on a campus with rolling lawns and ample parking, and because it can easily accommodate 3,000 people, with the potential to expand to 5,000.

Bill Silver, dean of the Wine Business Institute at SSU who serves on the Sonoma County Vintners board, brought the request to SSU President Judy Sakaki, and she welcomed the idea.

“At Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute, we value practicing what we teach,” Silver said. “The opportunity to host a world-class event like the Taste of Sonoma is a chance to engage our students and alumni in the business of creating memorable wine and hospitality experiences.”

President Sakaki, Silver explained, has emphasized that the school’s mission is to be a catalyst to bring the community together.

If all goes smoothly this year, organizers expect the Green Music Center to host the Taste of Sonoma for the foreseeable future. There even may be an evening performance next year to cap off the food and wine afternoon event.

As for the auction, formerly at Kenwood’s Chateau St. Jean, it has its new digs this year at La Crema Estate, owned by this year’s honorary chairwoman, vintner Barbara Banke. Banke is the chairwoman of the board of Jackson Family Wines. Chateau St. Jean was willing to entertain another year, but the organizers were already considering a different location.

“The La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard, in the heart of the acclaimed Russian River, has been a community gathering place for charitable events for years, so it seems only fitting for the Sonoma Wine Country Auction to be held there this year at Richard’s Grove,” Banke said. “The property also has a variety of unique indoor and outdoor spaces, capturing the essence of Sonoma wine country. We are really elevating the auction experience this year and believe the rich history and modern touches at Saralee’s will exude the magic we want to create.”

Replacing the Starlight Dinner at Geyserville’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery required group participation; that evening there will be vintner dinners throughout the county.

Beyond this year’s new lineup of venues, organizers have a long-term strategy in place. It was prompted by the explosive growth of the auction’s proceeds, with fundraising dollars spiraling to $4 million in 2014, up from $1.5 million in 2013.

Sessions said that rapid growth made organizers realize that the auction required a full-time staff, which was assembled in 2016 with oversight from both trade groups.

“The reason why we raised more money through the auction is because we activated many strategies to develop our audience, Fund A Need initiative and pre-selling of auction lots,” explained Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance. “All of this work took time to develop and activate from the top down.”

The long-term plan calls for the Sonoma County Vintners to continue to oversee auction operations, while Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance’s last year in the partnership will be 2019.

Cottingham said her trade group wants to focus its attention on its new event — Signature Sonoma Valley. The April event, which launched this year, is designed to give guests a deep dive into the wines, the agriculture and the personalities of the region. She said it’s undecided whether the event will include a live auction in the future.

Reflecting back on the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend collaboration, Cottingham said it has been a win-win in every way.

“It was incredible,” Cottingham said. “We were able to develop a platform that put the Sonoma County wine brand on the world’s stage.”

The partnership between the two organizations dates back to 2008 when Grant Raeside, then executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, and Honore Comfort, then executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners, came up with the idea to pool their resources to create a Labor Day package.

“Grant and Honore discussed the opportunities for collaboration and developed the partnership structure from that very conversation,” Cottingham said. “The concept was to combine the events to create the largest and most publicized wine event in Sonoma County.”

The two signature events, which had been six weeks apart, were the Sonoma County Vintners’ Showcase: Taste of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance’s Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction. Food and wine lovers, who have followed these events through the years, will tell you they’ve both gone through a considerable metamorphosis. It reveals that showcasing Sonoma County has been a creative work in progress for decades.

The Showcase: Taste of Sonoma was an offshoot of the former Sonoma County’s Chef’s Tasting, which dates back to 1990. It was an early version of the farm-to-table concept, showcasing local farmers and vintners as well as chefs from across the country. The Chef’s Tasting was held on the grounds of Saralee’s Vineyard in Richard’s Grove in Windsor, now La Crema Estate.

As for the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction, it dates back to 1993 and was well known for its hijinks. Skits would introduce auction lots, with risqué titles like “The Bad, Bad Benziger Boys.” A notable participant was vintner/comic Tommy Smothers, who would entertain bidders with his yo-yo tricks. He called himself “Yo-Yo Man,” a play off of Yo-Yo-Ma, the French-born Chinese cellist. John Lasseter, star animator of Disney and Pixar fame, was also a regular. One time he dressed up as the “Saturday Night Live” Lunch Lady, donning an apron and a hairnet.

“I participated in some of those skits, and I’m still haunted by them,” Sessions said, with a laugh.

In 2013, the word “Valley” was stripped from the name, and it was called Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction. This year the name has changed yet again, and now it’s simply Sonoma County Wine Auction.

“We’ve lost a little bit of the silliness in an effort to keep things moving so you don’t get tired under the tent,” Sessions said. “Auction lots need to be tremendously dynamic.”

Organizers are focused on fundraising, Sessions said, and the most hotly contested auction lots are the ones with fine wine, private access to vintners and exotic locations.

“We are dedicated to supporting our Sonoma County charity partners and elevating brand Sonoma County so its twofold — charitable giving and marketing,” Banke said. “Our charitable giving is focused on organizations that have a deep and meaningful impact on families … as our friends travel to Sonoma County from all around the world to join us for the auction, we hope that they will also be reminded of what an incredible destination and wine region this is.”

This year’s auction, Sessions said, is once again an opportunity to put Sonoma County in the limelight.

“The auction really allows us to get our message out, to showcase the very high end of the lifestyle of Sonoma, to spotlight grand Sonoma,” Sessions said. “It allows us to focus on a fine wine auction, not to be the same as Napa or Naples, but to be recognized on the same table.”

You can reach Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter: @pegmelnik

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